Monday, January 20, 2020

IRT's 'Morning After Grace' brings some unresolved difficulties of older lives to the fore

Angus and Abigail confront the meaning of their night together.
Some people feel a calling to be helpful to others. Some feel a calling to have others help them. Often they are the same people, which gets complicated. There was a lot of this in my generation, where my place was at the front end of the life stage that grips the three characters in "Morning After Grace," a knotty comedy by Carey Crim now in production at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

We mixed up selflessness and selfishness, imagining we were tearing down walls. Let me tell you a story: In graduate school, I joined a T-group, shorthand for a sensitivity training group, which enjoyed a vogue in the late 1960s. We went deep into each other's lives in regular meetings, guided by a professional counselor. A half-dozen or so of us anxious scholars, approaching the end of the paid-for sessions, were feeling incipient separation anxiety.

The bond we were so certain of had been created and sustained largely through Myron's gentle professionalism. One of us had a bright idea, outside the scheduled session: "We've all become good friends, and Myron is as much of a friend as anyone," she said to unanimous agreement. "Why don't we keep going as a group, and ask Myron to continue with us?"

The idea should have appalled the rest of us, but it didn't, not openly at least. It meant we would no longer pay Myron. Surely this wise, older guide was such a great, open-hearted soul that he would go along. We presented her idea to him at our last scheduled session. Somehow he declined so gracefully that the nervy idea vanished into thin air, with no evident hard feelings. But we had crossed a line, and no one spoke up to object to the cheap, unethical ploy. The world revolved around us, and all barriers were to be demolished through the force of our wry idealism. The fact that Myron was credentialed and paid to be as good as he was shouldn't matter, right?

OK, boomer.

That phrase, which tersely sums up the occasionally just critique of my generation by millennials, could well function as a dark subtitle for "Morning After Grace." The play throws together three professionals, retired or close to retirement, heading toward the Biblical limit of three score and ten. One of them, Abigail, still practices her profession of grief counseling, but she is called to be helpful in this play to assist resolution of her own griefs as well as those of her one-night-stand lover, Angus.

The key departure from what my T-group asked of Myron is that this is a voluntary application of Abigail's skills
Pot party: Climax of the funny stuff in "Morning After Grace"
that goes well beyond her three master's degrees and the fact that her professional bond with the third character, Ollie, focuses on the death of a pet. The raucous comedy set-up is rich at first, including a hilarious marijuana episode as the second act gets under way, but the darkening of the palette is expertly applied under Janet Allen's direction.

All three of these sympathetically portrayed people have self-work to do. The most real assistance any of us can make use of is probably through actual relationships, with payment in terms other than financial. Like every generation before or since, the one that came of age during what has been called "the American high" had to learn this. But it was our fault we forced ourselves to undergo greater disillusionment. We thought life was all about gift exchange, but we wanted that tilted toward our advantage. It's "easy to be hard," the song from "Hair" warned us; but we mocked it (at least the guys did) as "It's easy to get hard."

Henry Woronicz plays Angus displaying his usual gift for keeping a character's mask in place until it has to be thrown aside. He has crudely followed his wife Grace's funeral with an impulsive hooking up with Abigail, an accidental guest at the ceremony who nurtures a deep need to get back into action, her husband having dumped her. "Funerals are our singles bars," Angus says flippantly. Like Abigail, he also pursued a "helping profession," but in contrast to her, his work as a human-rights lawyer seems no longer pertinent. He lives in a blandly gorgeous dream condo, which scenic designer Bill Clarke has captured to perfection, as far as I can tell.

Angus' privileged status has some parallels with Abigail's life, though she has the advantage of relevance that retirees often struggle to sustain. As played by Laura T. Fisher, her wit and gift for repartee are linked to a firm notion of self-worth, undercut though it is by unmet emotional needs. Abigail's emergent vulnerabilities were poignantly delivered in the January 19 performance I saw.

Privilege is most compromised among the three charaacters in Ollie's situation. Hobbled by a hip injury, he is a former major-league baseball player further challenged in status by the sexual orientation he must keep hidden from his homophobic father, a nursing-home resident in Arizona. Ollie is also black, and commendably the playwright has little need to underscore that disadvantage on the top of the other. Compared to Abigail and Angus, he has the benefit of a stable, long-term relationship. Spats with James, his unseen partner, arise from his stark reluctance to come out to his father. Joseph Primes' performance was classy and resilient, revealing Ollie's eventual triumph of grace under pressure, thanks to Abigail and his own inner resources.

Evoking that Hemingway phrase brings me to the significance of the characters' names. "Angus" appropriately suggests anguish; the two hard consonants near the front of "Abigail" hint at her toughness, though the way the name softens and its sharing of an initial vowel with "Angus" gets at her tenderness. "Ollie" is deceptively soft on purpose, I believe, with a touch of irony. And how differently we would process this play if Angus' deceased wife were named Betty or Lauren! Grace is a quality that needs to emerge eventually from the play's roiling conflicts. It carries religious weight, so it is not absurd that Abigail's bringing up her clients' reports of butterflies or birds accompanying bereavement is confirmed by a cardinal's appearing to Angus through the skylight in the second act. Someone sitting near me said "Oh, no!" when this happened, but it worked.

The tension in the second act becomes nearly unbearable. The director's pacing has a masterly appropriateness;
Angus' defenses collapse as he comes to term with his wife's death.
the silences that mark Angus' pain are deafening. There was audience reaction: someone started applauding in anticipation of the final curtain, short of the play's necessary resolution. And, unprecedented in my theater-going experience, a man in my row left in front of us within ten minutes of the true ending. Nothing can break the theatrical illusion more thoroughly than someone even momentarily blocking your view. I tamed my annoyance by speculating that he had a really urgent call of nature. Then I hoped that if he had been triggered emotionally he might get the kind of help that eventually benefits Angus. Earlier, my own feeling at the successive departures of Ollie and Abigail in the second act I will credit to Crim: It was "please don't go" and "please come back." They did go, and they did come back. I had been on the floor there with Angus.

I'm also grateful to the playwright for not larding her script with topical Baby Boomer references. "Morning After Grace" doesn't need them. We don't have to hear the grief counselor talk about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, or the ex-Tiger allude to Stormin' Norman or that hoss Kirk Gibson as he mimicked pulling a chain-saw rope while rounding the bases. In "Morning After Grace," we are placed in the now of life's approaching twilight and asked to understand the power of grace as it may come to us, whatever generation we identify with.

Mine may deserve such grace more than my T-group had any right long ago to implore a professional counselor to abandon his standing in order to answer our illegitimate "calling" to him to be friends. The way he answered that request has given me space to generate my own reproach.

So thank you, Myron.

And I'm sorry, Myron.

OK, boomer.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Summit Performance's 'Be Here Now': An eerie comedy about how we shape identity and construct meaning

Carrie Ann Schlatter is one of several actors Indianapolis is fortunate to have who trigger our empathy the moment they appear onstage. In "Be Here Now," the Summit Performance production I saw Saturday night at the Phoenix's Basile Theater, it happened again. I thought: I don't know what is going on with this character, but I'm there.

Bemused co-workers Patty and Luanne listen to Bari's perspective.
That was in the first scene, when the voice of Georgeana Smith Wade as a yoga instructor booms the play's title, a phrase associated with a book by the late self-help guru Ram Dass, then proceeds with patiently intoned instructions. Schlatter's Bari, the troubled heroine of Deborah Zoe Laufer's play, is not having it. Two fellow practitioners, who we soon find out are her co-workers at a small-town "fulfillment center" (wrapping up various gewgaws, gimcrack and mass-produced talismans to be shipped out upon order), are fully invested in yoga.

My yoga skepticism may have played a role in my immediate sense of connection to Bari. Recently dealing with a bout of sciatica, I've resorted to exercises found online. One of them calls for you to face upward, lifting your upper body, while shoulders and feet are planted on the floor, then lower your back "one vertebra at a time."

I was perplexed. How can anyone do that? I asked my wife, who has had some yoga experience. It's just yoga-talk, she explained to me: for you it means to gradually lower your back onto the mat. Oh. No need to train my discs to march downward in single file, then. Good.

Well, there's quickly a lot more to learn about Bari, and she spills her guts at the shop to Patty and Luanne. One of the peculiarities of "Be Here Now" is that it violates our notions of "fulfillment centers" as soul-crushing factory outposts of the Amazon behemoth. I had no idea there are boutique-sized fulfillment centers in small towns. So as they carry out packing duties, involving such deceptions as removing "made in China" labels from items marketed as authentically Tibetan, the three women dish cozily about romance and the meaning of life.

Patty and Luanne, members of the same large family who gave their surname to the town Cooperville, find their faith in astrology and Christianity, respectively, shored up by mood-lifting medication. Bari rips the Coopers' manufactured happiness from a stance of militant atheism. She's an academic ABD (all but dissertation) in philosophy, her graduate-student teaching duties in suspension for the time being. We are asked to believe that her teaching specialty is nihilism, from which she keeps no scholarly distance whatsoever. It seems odd that an adjunct instructor would be given the narrow focus of nihilism rather than, say, Introduction to Philosophy.

The play gives me a few problems, but the production is top-drawer in all respects. Schlatter not only delivers on the spectacular impression she made in Summit Performance's 2018 maiden voyage, "Silent Sky," in a much different role; she also keeps us fascinated even as we're getting a bit tired of the role's longwindedness. The other three players sustain our attention and earn our trust as well: Cynthia Collins as the assertive shop manager Patty, Zariya Butler as the perky ingenue Luanne, and Ryan Ruckman as Mike, yet another Cooper, who's been set up by his relatives to meet Bari as a way to lift her spirits. Maybe she will find that life isn't pointless, after all.

Bari is dubious as she attempts to lend a hand to Mike's sanding of a discarded chair.
Mike comes on as a man used to non-attachment to humanity, but even in his laconic manner with Bari at first, not incapable of sympathy. He is blunt and terse in expression and mainly interested in keeping his eye peeled for discarded items that he can put to use building houses out of junk.

One of the puzzles of the script is that neither he nor Bari ever uses any other word for this raw material than "garbage," which of course covers what we also call junk or trash, but extends to food waste as well. I'm guessing that the playwright wanted the notion of the stuff we throw out to have the resonance of what quickly decays and attracts maggots and rats: the physical evanescence of life in spoilage. Of course, Mike's garbage has to be barely diodegradable, so that it can be the basis for his constructive visions, coveted examples of which have stunningly brought him today's pot of gold for creative types — a MacArthur fellowship.

One begins to wonder which of his interests, as well as this family-built town of the same name as a pioneering American author (whose father established the real Cooperstown), may have literary forebears? Is Mike the playwright's version of James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, the hero of several novels collectively called "Leather-Stocking Tales"? Mike's primitive lifestyle, his rejection of big-city ways, and other disciplined attributes come close to the Oxford Companion to American Literature's description of Natty: "Generous both to friends and to enemies, he possesses a simple staunch morality, and a cool nerve and never-failing resourcefulness."

Mike turns out to have guilt-steeped reasons for leaving New York City. That puts his search for life's meaning on a much different plane from the James Fenimore Cooper character.  Those reasons help explain chinks in Mike's "cool nerve" as he must decide how to deal with Bari's recurrent seizures, which present her with ecstatic visions of the peace and harmony she is incapable of realizing in her everyday life. These spells are beautifully manifested outside Bari's head in the sound and lighting design (Lindsey Lyddan and Laura E. Glover).

Directed astutely by Amy Lynn Budd with Lauren Briggeman's additional direction, there's a striving quality to "Be Here Now" that makes it endearing even as it puzzles. Its style may be derived, like so much modern drama, from  Chekhov's gentle comedies of ordinariness and its disappointments. It's a realism tweaked by visionary outbursts that draw upon the expressionism of Strindberg.

Coopersville is a modern town in many respects — everyone but Mike has an iPhone — but also resembles a timeless folk community. How come Mike and Bari plan to meet for lunch at a restaurant that's closed, and in a later scene, is confirmed as having been abandoned? Doesn't everyone nowadays check restaurant hours online beforehand? Word of mouth seems to be the major medium of communication, even though emergency calls and contemporary brain surgery play crucial roles in the plot of "Be Here Now."

It may be helpful, if not a further distraction, to evoke a book by an older counterculture contemporary of Ram Dass, Alan Watts, who 50-odd years ago wrote "The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are." Both Bari and Mike seem victims of this taboo, alienating them from their real identity. A long-undiagnosed illness and a horrible accident played their separate parts in erecting each individual taboo. At the end, their mutual need to come to grips with who they are makes this  a peculiarly fraught romantic comedy.

It also bears signs of wanting to be allegory, a form best known in the English-speaking world through John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." This pious dream fantasy had pride of place alongside the Bible in Protestant homes for over two centuries. Modern allegorical novels (though they are also serious literary parodies) include John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" (the Cain and Abel story) and Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres" ("King Lear").

The way the three women speak to each other in the shop makes them emblematic of contrasting views of life's significance; they are fully embodied in performance, yet seem rather two-dimensional. Then you have contemporary terms of art that could almost be Bunyanesque locations, symbolizing major way stations of pilgrimage that deserve capitalization. The unfulfilled Bari works grudgingly in a Fulfillment Center; Mike has had his big-city career in Mergers and Acquisitions destroyed, and must concoct mergers and acquisitions of his own. He has been forced to escape the metropolitan Vanity Fair just as decisively as Bari's pilgrimage has led her into the Slough of Despond, where guilt and self-hatred swamp her.

Allegorical language can be catching. So I will conclude by easing my Pain of Puzzlement down upon the Mat of Understanding. I've done it numbering one Interpretive Vertebra at a time here as the Belabored Back  laboriously descends. To everyone else who sees "Be Here Now," I wish a Gentle Lowering. I think you'll find it an exercise worth undertaking. There are laughs along the way, the enthrallment of mystery, and relief at the end.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Week #2 of "BTHVN2020": Sublime Eroica, revealing Triple Concerto, zesty new piece

It took me a week to discern that the sculpture under the name of the honoree in the  Hilbert Circle Theatre lobby
Krzysztof Urbanski: Led an "Eroica" of lasting stature.
was not abstract and Calderesque but a portrait in floating white shapes of Ludwig van Beethoven himself.

Such is the price of glossing over some details while focusing on others — which may indeed deserve your focus, but still.... Why not pay attention to everything? one asks oneself as age forces the realization that there is not much time left.

The music on offer this weekend (there's a repeat this afternoon, which I heartily recommend) captivated me thoroughly, apart from mild annoyance that there's too much note-spinning in the finale of Beethoven's "Triple" Concerto, which occupied most of the first half of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's program.

Dejan Lazic: His commissioned piece captures Beethoven's rowdy side.
My attention was riveted from the start: A helpful introduction to the commissioned piece, Dejan Lazic's "S.C.H.E.rzo," was happily given by the composer and ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski in dialogue from the stage. The work itself, adhering to the roughly five-minute limit required of the new works, offered a rousing peek into one aspect of Beethoven's soul: his sense of humor, rambunctious and sometimes puzzling to his contemporaries. "An unlicked bear," his older contemporary Luigi Cherubini called him.

Lazic builds his piece on the German musical spelling of the first four letters of the word "scherzo," the designation of those movements through which Beethoven pioneered the boisterous change he imposed upon the conventional symphonic minuet. The commissioned composer also transforms material from the program's linked work of the master, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Eroica), and weaves it in various guises into his structure. It's an intricate piece, but it immediately gets across.

The genius to whom the world is paying tribute on the 250th anniversary of his birth delved into music's meaning with a novel blend of expansiveness and concentration, as well as the technical and expressive skill to give order to his wild imagination. But the wildness sometimes issued in social behavior in which rage often rubbed shoulders with rough drollery. Lazic has captured some of this, while honoring such strictly musical applications of Beethoven's personality as its sudden surges of force. Along the way, there is a relaxed, almost lush episode, and near the end the orchestral piano attains prominence, as if Lazic were honoring an eminent concert-pianist predecessor. In the last few measures, I heard (whether they're intended or not) suggestions of Ivesian nose-thumbing.

Austin Huntington: Primus inter pares in Beethoven.
Lazic then appeared in his concert-pianist persona to take on the fluent role of supporting soloist for violinist Benjamin Schmid and cellist Austin Huntington. Beethoven's piano-trio set-up, with the orchestra supporting more than interacting, was an innovation in the first decade of the nineteenth century. As Marianne Williams Tobias' program note points out, the Triple Concerto has endured disdain often since then. And as I said above, despite an energizing change of meter near the end and the appealing vivacity of the Polish-inspired theme, the third movement is somewhat tedious.

I admired the way the soloists worked together throughout. The initial impression that Lazic was being
overassertive faded in the course of the three movements. Particularly striking was Huntington's engaging manner with the prominent cello part. In the second movement, Urbanski drew from the strings a hushed introduction that seemed perfectly designed to match the style of their ISO colleague. The smooth elegance of Huntington's playing was a hallmark of the performance. especially in lyrical passages.

One way to come at the revolutionary aura of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony may be to reverse an old description of another revolutionary work, Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," as the 20th century's "Eroica" Symphony. Wind the clock backwards, and think of the German composer's Op. 55 as the 19th century's "Rite of Spring" and you may be able to reset your ears to appreciate how groundbreaking the "Eroica" was for its time, how it may have seemed both endless and lawless to conservative ears.

Urbanski led a performance that both saluted the work's edgy quality, its bold push against "enoughness," and honored its claim to be a symphony for all time in addition to its own. In the first movement, what Friday's performance did was to make the "subito" dynamic shifts sound not just sudden but also essential to the fabric. The momentum was firmly set, and those "sforzandos" stuck out of the seamless texture without poking holes in it.

By the time the ISO reached the finale, nothing had been amiss apart from imprecise work in the violin sections as the Scherzo: Allegro got under way. That may have been forced by the sudden emotional and technical adjustment required by the contrast with the preceding movement (about which more to come). The Scherzo in particular displayed the glory of the natural horns in the famous Trio section; here was the woodland flavor of the original instrument, a timbre (shared by four horns in Friday's performance) speaking of the hunt and other outdoor signaling functions of the brass heritage. The effect was spine-tingling.

Speaking of physical reactions, however, it almost embarrasses me to report that I was near tears throughout the second movement, headed "Marcia funebre" (funeral march). The theme was stated with such poignancy and its dynamics observed so scrupulously that something approaching sobs of grief could be readily felt in the performance. The emotional immediacy was evident in every phrase. Everything sounded under exquisite control, but in a masterly design, emotion doesn't need to take a back seat in a performance of such well-judged detail.

I couldn't help thinking back to listening to the radio on Nov. 22, 1963, when I was a college freshman in Kalamazoo. The classical station played the first part of the "Marcia funebre" in between reports from Dallas. I remember how wrenching it was for the broadcast to cut away from Beethoven to the latest bulletin just as the music switched to the major mode — for heroism, especially when it demands the ultimate sacrifice, needs both what was lost to be mourned and the meaning of the loss to be celebrated. That's the balance this movement exemplifies like no other piece of music. The solo oboe introduces that episode, and at the end Jennifer Christen deserved the first solo bow, after Urbanski took his, for her excellence here and elsewhere in the "Eroica."

The march form is inevitably part of what warrior culture has left us. We may mourn all sorts of deaths, but death in battle has a stature, represented ritualistically, that even pacifists find hard to dismiss. And, true,  Beethoven's progeny left all sorts of monuments to the pain of death and the promise of transcendence, even when neither explicit heroism nor the carnage of war is a factor.

But you can take your cornucopia of symphonic requiems, your Strauss "Death and Transfiguration" and your Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony and put them in a respectable bucket, and the liturgically and programmatically free "Eroica" will still tower over them. As Aaron Copland said in one of his marvelous little books: Beethoven is a great man walking down the street; Mahler is an actor portraying a great man walking down the street. Nowhere is that great-man status truer than in the "Eroica."

And on a day in which we learned that our current commander-in-chief blasted his generals as "a bunch of dopes and babies," I'm sure I'm not the only one who needed a Beethoven Third (particularly a "Marcia funebre")
of this quality —  of this abundance of passion, insight, poise, and rectitude.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

'Music made him' and he made music for Indianapolis: ISO pays memorial tribute to Raymond Leppard

For me as an arts reporter, Raymond Leppard was a dream source. Affable and accessible in person, sometimes
At his start here: Leppard at Circle Theatre
to the discomfort of his administrative counterpart, he was always good for an informed, candid opinion about the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the broader situation of classical music in the late 20th century. He thought that "Yuletide Celebration" and most contemporary serious music each in its own way detrimental.

Insight into why his accessibility was so delightful  over the nearly nine years I covered the ISO part of his career was confirmed by several speakers at "A Celebration of Raymond Leppard," a memorial tribute program Monday at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The conductor-scholar-harpsichordist died in October at his Indianapolis home.

Several people who knew him much better than I spoke at the nicely planned, extensive combination of words and music. As ISO CEO James Johnson said in wrapping up the ceremony, all the musicians and crew gave of their time to celebrate the beloved maestro, who was born in London in 1927. Leppard, after making his international reputation mainly conducting the English Chamber Orchestra and preparing baroque operas, had an immediate impact on our orchestra, Johnson said, when he began his music directorship in 1987. He continued until 2001, when he was named the ISO's only conductor laureate to date.

Among the speakers was Marianne Williams Tobias, a pianist and the ISO's program annotator. Indirectly she supported why it was such fun for me as a journalist to meet with him or call him up: "Raymond had no nostalgia," she said, remembering his assertion that "I have always wanted to do what I'm doing now." That seemed to extend even to giving interviews, fortunately.

His spontaneity from the stage, where he spoke often at concerts but usually not too much, came to mind when Tobias recalled his taking questions from the audience at the Thursday night launch of classical weekends that used to be a regular part of the ISO schedule.

I remember that once when an audience member introduced a question by identifying himself as "a casual listener," Leppard pointedly advised that he was against casual listening. The maestro did that in such an offhand way that I suspect the questioner was not offended. Leppard then answered the question, whatever it was.

The program opened with a speech by Dr. John Bloom, the man who anchored Leppard's personal life and helped make the health challenges of Leppard's later years endurable and presumably pleasant, since the maestro was someone accustomed to taking pleasure in life. As his husband, Bloom made that more achievable. Kind, funny, brilliant and generous were some of the words Bloom brought forward as among those frequently applied to Leppard. A statement sketching in her friendship with Leppard was read on behalf of businesswoman-philanthropist Christel DeHaan, who was unable to attend.

Musically, some of the late maestro's gifts were detailed by Christopher Slapak, a member of the ISO board of directors and intense Leppard fan from his English Chamber Orchestra heyday. Leppard's strengths as performer and interpreter, chiefly of 17th- and 18th-century music, were clarity, ensemble unity, and rhythmic liveliness, the speaker said.

Major soloists expressed joy in working with him; Slapak mentioned oboist Heinz Holliger, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and violinist Cho-Liang Lin. In a typical mood of gentle self-deprecation, Leppard once admitted to Tobias: "I never had any wish to be a conductor; I wanted to be with people, and I'm very bossy."

Music was kept near the forefront of the program in performances of a Schubert piano-trio movement by musicians from the University of Indianapolis, where Leppard was artist-in-residence for many years; the movement "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations, with the ISO conducted by current music director Krzysztof Urbanski, and Mozart's "Ave verum corpus," with pops maestro Jack Everly conducting the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and the ISO.

Leppard, who titled his memoir "Music Made Me," seems to have exemplified a quotation I've always enjoyed from somewhere in the works of the 18th-century poet-lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who had no use for music. Despite their positions as Englishmen on opposite sides of that particular spectrum, Johnson once  identified the key to happiness as "the disposition to be pleased." I've always admired that reminder that happiness is not a solid achievable goal in life, but more like an attitude that dependably allows room for it to prevail. That may be enough of a definition to be certain that, over the course of his 92 years, Raymond Leppard was a happy man.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Indy Jazz Foundation ramps up impresario role with recording project, 'The Naptown Sound'

For two nights running this weekend, the Jazz Kitchen played host to a gathering of many of the top musicians in Central Indiana to showcase "The Naptown Sound."

The umbrella term may suffice to build interest in a recording that's set to emerge from four sets Friday and Saturday, with sponsorship from Indianapolis Jazz Foundation and Yats, the local Creole restaurant chain whose mother ship has long docked just south of the jazz club on College Avenue. Certainly the live performances themselves must have advanced the cause.

Attending the first set Saturday, I found there was just enough design to the program, but not too much to seem to inhibit spontaneity of either performance or response. The Indy Jazz Collective got things going, with its flexible size pretty much at a comfortable maximum. The front line of leader Rob Dixon and Sophie Faught, tenor saxes, trombonist Freddie Mendoza and trumpeter/flugelhornists Marlin McKay and Mark Buselli, made sturdy work of "Millions," composer Dixon's wry, hard-grooving tribute to casinos and the millions of dollars that vanish there.

With a rhythm section of Steve Allee, Nick Tucker, and Carrington Clinton, the ensemble shored up the end of each solo with a repeated tag, propelling the next individual statement. The tune has had widespread exposure  thanks to "Coast to Crossroads," Dixon's 2018 trio recording with Charlie Hunter and Mike Clark.

Pianist Allee brought to the stage a tasty blend of adventurous harmonies and funky feeling. The veteran bandleader-pianist later headed a group in a romp through his original, "Yummy," a tune with lots of space in it. The performance featured a typically appealing Dixon solo. The backing for McKay's ruminative flugelhorn solo was smoothly understated, yet insistent, from Jon Wood's bass guitar and Kenny Phelps' drums. Adjustment that showcased soloists well seemed to come naturally to this band.

Wood's sound and well-articulated lines enhanced the guitar triumvirate paying tribute to Wes Montgomery with the demigod guitarist's "Road Song."  The guitarists — Ryan Taylor, Joel Tucker, and Charlie Ballantine — showed both their distinctiveness and respect for the sainted master. Also making the memorial connection come alive was the elaborate  zest of Kevin Anker's organ-playing.

The Tucker Brothers' quartet: Nick (from left), Joel, Sean Imboden, and (hidden behind Imboden) Brian Yarde.
A pickup band of distinction proved to be the Ball State Connection, which in jazz studies director Buselli's "The Trouble With Triplets," evoked the relaxed swing of classic hard bop. The composer's plunger-muted solo was a highlight of the performance.

Some grounding in bop was evident in the Tucker Brothers' appearance. The quartet has been remarkably cohesive in a series of recordings and frequent concert dates over the past several years. They proved their mettle in the tricky "Rhythm Change," notable for a fleet, well-integrated guitar solo by Joel Tucker.

Another highlight on the occasional reflective side of the set was Sophie Faught's duo with Allee in her shapely ballad "Song of the Snow Belt." That was immediately preceded by Jared Thompson leading his own sax charge at the head of his quartet, Premium Blend. The band opened space near the end for an exuberant accompanied solo from drummer Yarde. The other vitality-infusing members are keyboardist Steven Jones and guitarist Taylor. The set closed with one of the Naptown Sound program's successful blends (also premium, you might say), a blues also bringing Taylor, Wood, Clinton, and Anker to bear on the mood of celebration.

[Photo by Rob Ambrose]

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Putting on their anniversary best: ISO opens a long-running celebration of Beethoven

In the lobby, his name in all caps hangs above a white-cloud sculpture seemingly inspired by Alexander Calder's mobiles, the work of a University of Indianapolis art-department team. The pre-concert crowd milled expectantly around, swelled by infrequent symphony attenders drawn by the name and music of the honoree.
Beethoven aloft: The Hilbert Circle Theatre lobby

The occasion was Friday's launch at Hilbert Circle Theatre of BTHVN2020, the vowel-less, freeze-dried signal for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven's 250th birth year. Just add passion and preparation and stir.

But how should an observer proceed? How to welcome the inevitable celebration in a focused manner as BTHVN2020 gets under way? I feel somewhat akin to Stephen Leacock's Lord Ronald, who after a quarrel with his father "flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions."

Here's part of the problem: It has been brought up on previous Beethoven anniversaries (significant round numbers commemorating birth and death [1827]) that the world's orchestras in effect offer a perpetual Beethoven festival in their regular programming.

The best honor, the estimable critic Michael Steinberg decreed half-seriously in the Boston Globe at the 1970 bicentennial, might be not to play Beethoven for a year. Recently the Chicago Tribune published an essay by a feminist musicologist on the same theme, with no tongue-in-cheekiness about it: Replace Beethoven with new music for a year, she urged. And Norman Lebrecht, international star music blogger, viewed the possibility with a predictably jaundiced eye.

A moratorium is beyond the pale when so much of symphony-orchestra health nowadays is tied to marketing: Beethoven sells. And musicians are careful to avoid trumpeting any suggestion they are tired of him. The late Raymond Leppard (who will be given an ISO memorial tribute at 5 p.m. Jan. 13 at its home) was being characteristically frank when he admitted to me long ago: "I thought of him as here's this German always coming at you."

Yet Leppard, surely not driven by marketing but by artistic vision, offered ISO patrons a well-conceived "Young Beethoven" festival thirty years ago. And the composer's Symphony No. 2 in D major was the vehicle in that festival by which Leppard drove home to me what he had accomplished since assuming the music directorship in 1987. This is, in part, what I wrote in my Indianapolis Star review: "Emotionally, the performance maintained almost flawlessly a balance between intensity and charm. The cohesiveness Leppard has imparted to the ensemble can now serve larger expressive natural as to sound spontaneous."

The ISO has built upon those strengths with Leppard's successors. On Friday night, Krzysztof Urbanski drew from the orchestra a full-fledged celebration of the composer's path to revolutionary status. It brought forward Urbanski's strengths as an interpreter, particularly with respect to balance and momentum. Like Arturo Toscanini, whose recorded set of Beethoven symphonies still stands as a milestone, Urbanski thinks of lines running parallel in Beethoven. The hints of the romanticism that was to be in full flower by mid-century mustn't be forced to bloom in performances weighed down with glutinous profundity: Beethoven is not Schumann.

I thought particularly in the second movement that the young German, who had studied counterpoint with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger at the recommendation of Joseph Haydn during Beethoven's early Viennese period, displays how he'd internalized his lessons with personal mastery. The prolific composer Albrechtsberger is known today only as one of Beethoven's teachers, a small collection of masters who, unsurprisingly, found him hard to instruct. (The first time I'd encountered the name was in a "Peanuts" cartoon, thanks to Schroeder.)

Beethoven's willfulness and iconoclasm can be discerned in several places in this weekend's program, which besides the Second Symphony comprises Symphony No. 1 in C major and two new works commissioned for the occasion:  Nathaniel Stookey's "Spire" and Hannah Lash's "Forestallings." The First Symphony has some famous novelties, notably the teasing start of the finale (alertly rendered on Friday). I sensed that Urbanski finds the music preparatory to more characteristic Beethoven. The performance was nimble, if a little too weighty in some full-ensemble passages. The interplay of winds and strings, especially in a slower-than-usual "Menuetto" third movement, was delightful.

Still, I think both the wit and the unleashing of orchestral might were especially scintillating in the D-major Symphony. The admirable Hoosier-trained maestro Kenneth Woods, in his blog ranking of Beethoven symphony finales, puts its "Allegro molto" movement near the top, next to the august No. 9.  He finds No. 2's conclusion both funny and "rude": "the main theme is a sort of deranged musical fart joke," runs Woods' memorable assessment.

Urbanski may not have been aiming at that effect, but it certainly could be applied to how Friday's performance proceeded, right through the Bronx-cheer-like buzzing in the coda, which the conductor summoned up with wildly waggling fingers. Here was music that almost matched Urbanski's hyperbolic image, delivered in an oral program note from the podium, of Beethoven trashing the mansion of Western music, presumably like certain rock bands once vandalized hotel rooms.

In the two new works, there was more a feeling that musical tradition, altered but not ruined by Beethoven, was worth a centered approach. "Spire" opens with a low-register murmur that  brought to mind the episode in Elgar's "Enigma" Variations in which a steamship's whir is evoked. The impression is dispelled as the texture gradually becomes thinner and the tessitura shifts upward. It amounts to a meditation on that teasing scalar passage in the First Symphony's finale. "Forestallings," whose title suggests the push-pull between Beethoven's impulsive gestures and checks he often put on the music's forward thrust, was also attractive, if rather more laconic. There was an impression I can't quite shake (drawn mainly from her video statement) that the composer felt constrained by the five-minute limit in the commission.

Clearly I have not felt such constraints here, and there is more I could go on about: the gleaming contribution of the horns and trumpets, heard in their valveless predecessors in this series of concerts, and my favorable first impression of the ISO's just-announced new concertmaster, Kevin Lin, who's in place this weekend as one of a long series of guest concertmasters.

However, though by no means out of a Ronaldian fit of rage, it seems I've already ridden madly off in all directions. Beethoven will do that to you.